SHE SAID – Review by Jennifer Green

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Is She Said the portrayal of female journalists we’ve been waiting for?

A lot has been written about the depiction of female journalists in She Said, director Maria Schrader and scriptwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book about their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

Reviewers have praised the film for offering what other investigative journalism movies (think All the President’s Men or Spotlight) have not — the female perspective, especially outside the newsroom.

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (played by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan) are seen juggling family life and work in the film. They’re also covering a story that impacted women especially, so most of their sources are female.

Their reporting helped invigorate the #MeToo movement, which empowered women around the globe to publicly denounce sexual misconduct and has resulted in some very high-profile men, like Weinstein, being held accountable for inappropriate and even illegal behavior, as well as some changes to workplace oversight (as end credits describe).

Stating the obvious, as a journalist and a woman, I was excited to see this film and predisposed to like it. I am its target demographic: according to The Hollywood Reporter, almost half of opening weekend ticket sales went to people aged 45 and older, and more than 60 percent of viewers were “older females.”

Unlike many critics, I was surprisingly underwhelmed by this movie. I wasn’t convinced by the depiction of the reporters’ uniquely female concerns, nor by its portrayal of high-stakes investigative journalism. I do think the film does an excellent job of portraying the fragility of survivors and the potential long-lasting impacts of sexual violence.

I’ll try to explain here, knowing I’m treading into controversial territory. We are apparently so starved for these kinds of stories that critiquing the ones we get might be considered bad form.

Juggling Work & Kids Never Looked So Easy

The buzz about She Said is that we finally get to see female journalists at home, outside their work, and juggling motherhood and marriage. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t appear to have families of their own in their paper-cluttered apartments — work was their life, according to the 1976 film about their Watergate investigation.

The same can be said of many on-screen journalists, including women, though three-dimensional depictions are out there, including recent ones like Danish series Borgen and the new ABC/Hulu show Alaska Daily.

If only the portrayal of Kantor and Twohey’s home lives were more realistic.

For example, both reporters are apparently married to saints. These are husbands who never appear to lose their patience, don’t mind at all when phones ring in the middle of the night and who are never, ever not available when the women need to work long hours or fly across the continent or ocean. It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t at least occasional tension or scheduling problems. Their Hollywood-ization diminishes the realism, in my opinion.

Twohey struggles with postpartum depression in the film. Mulligan portrays this in an honest and understated way. Both Kantor and their female editor, Rebecca Corbett (played by Patricia Clarkson), are empathetic in talking to her about it. But the depression seems to magically disappear when Twohey gets back to work. I was left wondering if the book gave this more attention.

Meanwhile, Kantor has two children, and her older daughter is precociously attuned to the subjects her mother is working on. As a mom, I know what it is to have a child’s watching eyes and listening ears at sometimes inconvenient moments. But a scene where Kantor breaks down after Facetiming with her daughter, who uses the word “rape” for the first time on their call, feels forced — and not just because of Kazan’s noticeable acting (for me, an issue throughout the film).

The idea of showing her older daughter as aware of and impacted by Kantor’s work on the Weinstein story is commendable, but it’s done in a heavy-handed way in that it involves the daughter asking difficult and pointed questions about the investigation almost every time she’s alone with her mom on screen.

It’s an issue of adaptation. It’s one thing to try to condense months or years of lived experience into a 320-page book, and yet another to adapt that to 129 minutes of screen time. Things get lost, and many experiences must be concentrated into far fewer emblematic moments.

That seems to be the case with the reporters’ home lives and families in this film.

Journalists Take Better Notes

It’s also the case with their work lives. The movie has to condense a ton of reporting legwork into bits and pieces, crafting an ultimately disjointed portrayal of investigative journalism based as much on trying to create suspense and elicit emotion from viewers as on representing the actual work of journalists.

It makes me think that the most qualified writers and directors for films about journalists might be former journalists themselves.

For example, we see a lot of interactions between the journalists and Weinstein’s alleged victims, but Kantor and Twohey rarely record conversations and barely take notes in these scenes. The implication is that more thorough, on-the-record interviews take place off-screen, but these aren’t shown. Will every viewer make that assumption?

The film builds up to a final scene where multiple people are painstakingly editing the final draft of the story, but the grunt work beyond the tracking and initial meetings with sources and off-the-record conversations — the recording and triple-checking of facts, the call-backs, the sifting through documents — is, again, more suggested than shown.

Twohey also seems to conduct an awful lot of very sensitive phone calls while walking the busy streets of New York City, according to this movie. Of course journalists have to take calls while on the move, but I find it difficult to believe this reporting veteran would choose to make important calls herself while out walking among noisy crowds and city traffic.

My guess is the filmmakers wanted New York City to feel like a character in the film — it’s the setting where Weinstein reigned supreme and, of course, home base for the paper, one of the few left with the resources to support investigative work like Kantor’s and Twohey’s.

This could be a stretch, but I wonder if the treatment of the setting isn’t also related to the fact that the director and scriptwriter are both not originally from the US? NYC represents a lot of things and is often tasked with representing America as a whole.

Weinstein & the Women

The filmmakers also make the odd choice to use an actor to play Weinstein but only have him heard on calls or seen from afar or from behind. Maybe the idea was to make him seem more menacing by showing him less? Was the actor necessary, in that case? Same for the recreated flashbacks of some victims’ stories.

The film does include what appears to be the actual recording of Weinstein taped by a woman who wore a police wire. Will audiences unfamiliar with the details of these individual cases understand what’s real and what’s reenacted/acted? Does it matter?

One aspect I think the film handles very well is the portrayal of the female journalists as extremely patient and notably empathetic with their sources.

A scene where a man offensively tries to hit on the journalists at a bar and Twohey (Mulligan) lashes out at him hints at the reality that many female journalists may have a more lived empathy than their male counterparts for female victims of sexual harassment and assault. The film also shows how both journalists themselves received or perceived threats for their reporting.

By far the most compelling part about this screen adaptation, for me, isn’t the female journalists but rather the victims/survivors. It’s hard to take your eyes off Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle, playing two former Weinstein assistants, as they waver between tears and steely resolve in recounting past experiences with him. Ashley Judd, another Weinstein accuser, makes a surprising and powerful appearance as herself in the film.

Their stories lay out how a powerful predator can get away with abusive behavior for decades, and how his actions can have devastating and long-lasting effects.

“Read the Damn Book”

I found myself wondering constantly during the movie just what She Said was leaving out in its adaptation of the book. A Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) critique of the film subtitled Read the Damn Book reminded me to put this tome back at the top of my to-read list.

I gather that in their book, Kantor and Twohey describe in detail the steps involved in piecing together their story and convincing women to go on the record. The film attempts to show this too, but it leaves a lot out and expects audiences to make connections and fill in blanks themselves.

On the recent recommendation of a friend, I’ve been reading Ronan Farrow’s book, Catch and Kill, about his own investigations into Weinstein for NBC and The New Yorker, which shared the Pulitzer with Twohey and Kantor. So I’m up on the details of the multiple allegations that broke this story open.

I honestly had to rely on that reading to keep track of names and events alluded to or mentioned in passing in She Said. My teenage daughter watched with me and we had to pause regularly so I could explain what was going on.

The problem is, the film should stand on its own without requiring viewers to read the book or know the details of the investigation beforehand. Again, it’s a matter of adaptation — selecting what to include and what to leave out. I think the film relies too heavily on viewers knowing the ‘story’ behind the story and takes audience investment (particularly among its target demographic) for granted.

On its opening weekend, even despite positive reviews, the film had “one of the worst starts in modern times for a major Hollywood studio release,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it, sending analysts into a tizzy trying to explain why.

Kantor and Twohey’s reporting deserves continued attention and praise. Flawed or not, the film could reach more and different audiences than the book, and it has the potential to inspire renewed interest in the power of journalism as well as the importance of holding the powerful accountable.

And that would be a good thing.

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.